Planning for the Gristmill and Sawmill

The actual construction of the Saint Vincent Gristmill is a fascinating story. With George Washington Bollinger’s design and under his supervision, the construction of the gristmill was done completely by the lay brothers. Copies of the design were at two sites: the sawmill on Chestnut Ridge and the designated Saint Vincent site for the gristmill. The beams and planks for the structure were cut at the sawmill, and so coded that the end of the beams had Roman numerals carved into them for identification so that the lay brothers assembling the gristmill at Saint Vincent would know where each beam belonged in the structure. It was a long, tedious endeavor to haul the wood from the Ridge to Saint Vincent. But the construction of the gristmill was complete in December 1854 at a cost of approximately $3,000. It was, however, in operation before that date; the first flour was ground in October 1854. It was a horrible coincidence that, in the same year, the crops at Saint Vincent failed, and the gristmill could not be put to full use.

The construction of the gristmill was unique for Saint Vincent in that it was built almost entirely of wood; other Saint Vincent buildings had been constructed—and would continue to be constructed—almost entirely of brick. The foundation of the gristmill was built from sandstone quarried by the lay brothers. Bricks were used for the chimney and the basement walls; these bricks had been made at Saint Vincent monks’ own brick ovens. The original gristmill building was 35 feet wide, 45 feet long, with a gabled roof having three stories and a basement. On each of the four floors there were two major support-beams in the center of the building. Each of these beams was 10 inches by 10 inches by 45 feet long, a solid piece of wood from a single virgin tree sawed on the Ridge. All of the beams, supports, floors, platforms, drive wheels, and stone covers were constructed from oak. The clapboard siding on the building was American chestnut. It is worthy of note that around the turn of the century a killing blight struck the chestnut trees, so much so that they no longer thrive on the Ridge and the wood is in scare supply. Rolled glass from 1854 and later filled many of the numerous windows of the building.

Part of the design of the millwright, Bollinger, was for a one-story sawmill connected to the west side of the gristmill. This addition was complete in early 1855, and was attached to the gristmill by means of a slanting roof. The frontage of the building was now increased from 45 to 85 feet; the depth, from 35 to 50 feet. And, within the next few years and before 1864, Brother Wolfgang Beck, an architect, would design the complement of the sawmill which would raise it to the height of the gristmill. The second floor would contain a planing mill; and the third floor would be used for grain storage. This sawmill housed a vertical saw of the “up-and-down” type, which was very slow in cutting wood, and yet this sawmill turned out many thousands of feet of lumber in the course of thirty years. Of interest is the fact that there are in the sawmill area two impressively hewn oak support beams with dimensions of 13 inches by 19 inches by 15 feet; on one of these the vertical saw was mounted. And the monks kept up with the times; by the early 1860s they had installed a more efficient circular saw alongside the vertical saw. But the days of this sawmill were numbered; after 1885, there was little demand for it, since much of the timber had been cut down, and what remained was taken care of by portable sawmills. In fact by 1918 the sawmill had been dismantled and the space that had been used by the saws and the planner was converted into a badly needed area to store grain.

In 1883 the gristmill was again expanded, this time to the east. With this 35 by 40 foot addition the building reached its present total frontage of 125 feet, and took on its present appearance. This new section had been built for additional grain storage and to provide a covered passageway for the loading and unloading of grain and flour.

The best description of the architecture of the Saint Vincent Archabbey Gristmill was made in 1966 in the nominations form for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The intent was that the gristmill remains more faithful to the Bavarian architectural styles of the homeland of these monks rather than to the mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival styles of most buildings of that day. The complete description reads as follows: “Architecturally, the style of the gristmill certainly was influenced by the fact that the monks who built it were Bavarians and would have used the styles that were familiar to them. The ability of the building to endure time alone is a tribute to the industry of that generation. The trend in this section of Pennsylvania at this period of time (1850s) was the Greek Revival style but these secular styles had little influence on the master craftsmen who built the gristmill. The greater tradition of 1,500 years of monastic architecture shaped the lines by which these men built. The simplicity of line and honesty of material are the chief elements by which these monks planned and constructed their buildings.”

The power source for both the gristmill and the sawmill was steam generated by a coal furnace. A waterwheel was not used because the technology of the day dictated that the most efficient source of power would be steam generated by coal. Also dictating the choice was the fact that coal mined on Saint Vincent property fired the engine. For the gristmill the steam engine operated a drive-shaft system on each floor. Each machine was connected to the steam shaft which was employed by engaging a hand-clutch. The gristmill is built over a never-failing spring of water that was used to supply the boilers. Two cylindrical boilers generated the steam to power the mills; they were, however, replaced by others of a more modern type in 1895. The first engine was a slow, long-stroke type, replaced in 1877 by a more efficient Fischer engine. This single source of power for both mills brought on an interesting relationship; since both could not operate at the same time, the sawmill would operate during the twelve hours of the day with the gristmill in operation during the twelve hours of the night. The reasoning was that the sawyer needed more light to see while he was operating the machinery than did the miller.